Talking With Teens About Exam Results

Living here in New Zealand with a daughter who has just finished Year 12, I’m fully aware of the stress this week can bring to homes across the country: Yes – the dreaded NCEA results are now posted.

How will my daughter react? How well has she done? Do her results seem fair in her mind? In my mind? Do these results open more doors for her than they close? Will her results encourage her to keep on getting more formal education, or put her off and make a gap year or an early start into the working world more likely?

As a mum I’m very much aware of how important these moments with our older children can be. At this age our teens are craving to see the jigsaw puzzle pieces of their lives begin to form some discernable image. They are longing to figure out “who am I and how do I fit in here?” Exam results are one more piece of the puzzle. Increasingly they are receiving feedback from the world about their success in handling the hurdles we place in front of them to enter this wider world. Are they attending, finishing and getting passing grades in Years 11, 12 and 13? Are they effective in group work? Do they pull their weight or slack off? How do they handle the pressure of assignment deadlines? How do they manage the intense boy/girl scene as hormonal roller coasters kick in? Can they get that waitressing job on top of sports, babysitting and a heavy social media agenda?  Does it make more sense to leave College after Year 11 or Year 12 because other opportunities make more sense?

As a Relationship Therapist and a mum I’m very much aware of how important these moments with our older children can be, but for a different reason.  I am aware that as the wider world pulls our teens increasingly into it’s grasp, trying to slot our precious child into an appropriate societal mould, my ability to influence and shape this young person is dwindling – and fast. I can no longer run interference between my child and the way the world sees him or her.  No amount of tasty home-made lunches, ironed shirts, helped-with science projects, library-book runs, exciting birthday invitations and car rides chanting the times tables will help my teenager take responsibility for his or her next steps.

All I have left – as the parent of a teen – is my relationship with him or her. And that relationship is built, one day at a time, one conversation at a time.

So – back to the exam results.

Parents – my invitation to you as you meet this next round of “judgment” from the world upon your teen – is to consider these three things:

  1. Know that every conversation you have with your teen (with anyone!) will do one of two things: It will bring you closer or it will push you apart.
  2. When everything else in your teen’s life is so totally full of risk, change, flux and uncertainty, the biggest gift you can give your teen is the consistency of your loving, supportive presence.
  3. So, if you want a conversation with your teen about exam results (or anything else that matters to them) can you set yourself an intention to use this conversation to grow closer?

 5 Tips for Conversations That Bring You Closer

 1.     START GENTLY. This is easy when you are in a good mood and having a happy conversation, but even if you are anxious or angry, start carefully. One great opening line is simply to state your intention to have a good conversation and an acknowledgment of your own emotional state.  E.g., “Betsy, I’d love to have a chat about your NCEA results. I find I’m feeling a bit anxious since I know how much you were dreading these. Is now a good time?”

2.     GET CURIOUS. If a conversation is to be a genuine conversation then there needs to be some back and forth. All too often our attempts to share can fall victim to the one-way lecture! If you want to know about Betsy and her results, and she is willing to talk to you, then try asking her a question: E.g., “Betsy, have you had a chance to check your exam results? And if you have – how are you feeling about them?”

3.     DISCOVER FEELINGS.  What’s so interesting about a fact?  So, even if Betsy comes right out and tells you her exam results, so what? What matters both to Betsy and you is how she feels about them – right? So let her know you care about her by asking how she is feeling. You’ll see both the examples above already include a feelings element.  This might be new for you – but it’s a real key to improving the quality of your conversations. E.g., “Wow Betsy! You rocked your Level 2 English; I’ll bet you feel confident moving forward into Year 13 with that subject. How do you feel about your Biology scores?”

4.     IDENTIFY NEEDS. Even though you want to communicate to your teen that he or she is the capable captain of his or her ship, you also want to show you are on their team. We all have needs, and learning how to identify and meet our needs more or less effectively is a life-long journey. So – model this with your teen. E.g., “Betsy, I know you’ve been hoping to go on to University. Given these scores, what do you think you need right now to keep your goal a possibility?

5.     LISTEN. This is the key to everything. Listening means being quiet and…. listening! Listening does not mean you are agreeing or endorsing what you hear. It simply means you are keen to understand your teen (or whomever you’re listening to). Lean forward. Nod encouragement. Try not to react to what you hear. Ask clarifying questions if you are not clear about something, but be aware of how you ask – your whole heart and self  needs to communicate that it is important for you to fully understand your teen. If possible, try and sum up what you’ve heard. E.g., “So Betsy, if I understand you correctly, you feel on track with everything except your biology. You still want to go on to University but you realize these results might slow you down by a whole year. What you most need is help with the sciences and you’d love for us to talk about how to afford a good science tutor this year?”


(Remember, you can always have conversation do-overs if one heads south.)

If you have any specific questions about how to talk with your particular teen, please do not hesitate to drop me an email. I always respond!



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